Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Watering Trees During and After a Drought + Preparing Them for the Next One

August 12, 2021 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 1 Episode 31
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Watering Trees During and After a Drought + Preparing Them for the Next One
Show Notes Transcript

Jake MacDougall from Davey's South Minneapolis office talks about how to care for your trees during and after a drought, as well as how to prepare them for another one to ensure your trees stay healthy and strong after the hot, dry summer. Jake also talks about his job as an arborist and how the team stays safe while on the job.

In this episode we cover:

  • Drought tolerant trees (1:00)
  • Ideal time to plant a tree to prepare for a drought (1:41)
  • Watering your tree properly (2:31) (7:24)
  • Knowing when a tree needs water (4:47)
  • Trees that like well-drained soil (5:47)
  • Mulching correctly (8:35)
  • Combination of turf and trees (11:52)
  • How Jake started his job (13:03)
  • What a sales arborist does (14:24)
  • Stretching and staying safe on the job (15:20)
  • Meeting with homeowners (19:04)

To find your local Davey office, check out our find a local office page to search by zip code.

To learn more about drought tolerant trees, read our blog, Best Trees for Drought Areas (Drought Tolerant Trees by Zone).
To learn more about how often to water your trees during a drought, read our blog, How Often to Water Trees During a Drought.
To read more of our blogs on drought, go to our Drought blog page.

Connect with Davey Tree on social media:
Twitter: @DaveyTree
Facebook: @DaveyTree
Instagram: @daveytree
YouTube: The Davey Tree Expert Company
LinkedIn: The Davey Tree Expert Company

Have topics you'd like us to cover on the podcast? Email us at We want to hear from you!


Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davey's certified arborists sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes. We'll talk about everything from introduced pests, seasonal tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer.

This week, we're joined by Jake MacDougall. He is a consulting arborist with the Davey Tree Expert Company in the Minneapolis area. We're going to talk all about drought-tolerant trees. How we're doing, Jake?

Jake MacDougall: I'm doing pretty good. It's a hot one out there today, so glad to be inside for a minute.

Doug: We're going to have some storms coming through, so if the middle of this podcast goes black, I'll call you right back.

Jake: That sounds good. I'll come out with my chainsaw for you.

Doug: I'll probably need it. Trust me. When you're thinking drought-tolerant trees, what's the first thing that comes to mind.

Jake: For me, it's really the age of the tree, how long has it been in the landscape. Second to that, I think about slow-growing trees like oaks and elms that tend to tolerate better.

Doug: If I'm thinking about adding something to the landscape, and I'm concerned about watering it, is that where we go, is thinking about oaks and trees like that?

Jake: It can be helpful. For me, I'm more consider what time of year am I planning and how long does that tree have to set up shop and be ready for that drier summer.

Doug: When is your ideal time to plant a tree?

Jake: Spring and fall. Midsummer is just too hot. You can keep them watered, and you can have some success, but really spring and fall, put them in while it's cooler and allow them to grow those roots that they need to soak up for water.

Doug: Of those two seasons, is there a favorite between them?

Jake: I think fall.

Doug: It is for me. I'm just going on what I've been told over the years, but from your perspective, and you had your druthers, would it be fall?

Jake: Yes, it would. I think fall gives it a stretch of time where the temperature's right. They can grow some roots, and then they've got the winter to go dormant, and then they'll have the whole spring again to continue to grow those roots before the heat really sets in.

Doug: We're coming up to planting season. We've talked a lot on the podcast about proper ways to plant a tree. Number one thing, folks, don't plant them too deep. I'm sure you say that all the time. How much water do I put on that tree when it does go in the ground?

Jake: There are a couple of ways you can check on that. What I found helpful, the simplest way to do it is just to put a hose with a slow trickle at the base of the tree. I'd say run it for 10 to 15 minutes for every diameter inch that the tree is. If you're going to run it for 20 minutes, say put it in two different spots. If you're going to run it for 45, put it in three and just move it, so you can soak that whole root ball. Sometimes, you'll go out and check, and you've left the hose in one spot, all just run off into the lawn or the street, and you just wasted all the water you're trying to save your tree with.

Doug: If I'm thinking drought-tolerant trees, are there certain species that don't need as much water as other trees? Is that something to be concerned with?

Jake: For me, it's more you want to monitor the moisture content of the soil. As long as you can keep the top six to nine inches of the soil wet, your tree's going to do all right. What I'd do is put that hose there, let it run, and then after 10, 15 minutes, check the soil around the tree, the top six to nine inches and see if it is down and soaked through that whole area around the tree. If it's not, give it another 10, 15 minutes and do it until you've soaked that root ball.

Doug: How big of a tree do we do this on? A giant oak tree, that's going to need hundreds, thousands, millions of gallons, [chuckles] I don't know.

Jake: It's going to need a lot. In that case, you can set up drip irrigation or a soaker hose, and you really do want to cover the whole drip line of that canopy branch tips to branch tips and get that top six inches of soil wet, which can be difficult when you've got thick turf. You're going to have to dig down a little bit, be mindful not to harm the roots, especially when you're working closer to the tree, and see if you are getting that good top layer of soil wet.

Doug: Are there things that I should be looking at my tree when things do dry out to indicate like, "Oh boy, that one needs water, but this one looks okay"?

Jake: It can be tricky because with evergreens, overwatering and underwater and can have some similar appearance. I was talking with another arborist today, and in Minneapolis, we often have places with high clay content in the soil. It's like you're putting your tree in a pot with no drainage holes at the bottom. It's really monitoring the dampness of that topsoil, but not putting it in a mud pit.

You watch for those leaves as they start to look crinkled and wilty, and with a younger tree, it can look like any plant you've got in the backyard, it just starts to droop. At that point, you know you're behind on watering. It's best to stay ahead of it because the damage can be done, and it's harder to bring them around than it is to maintain them.

Doug: When we talk about trees in general, we've got things like willows that we know like these low wet areas. What's the antithesis of that when we're thinking trees that want dry feet?

Jake: For me, ornamental trees, like mugo pines, really like that well-drained soil. White pines also, they need to dry out and breathe. I think pine trees are, in a lot of ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of they need the water, but they don't need to sit in it or that's going to be hard on them too.

Doug: Anything else in that category you can think of when you're putting a tree in?

Jake: Red maples can be a little more sensitive. A lot of maples do much better with being in that lower water area.

Doug: When you're on-site, taking a look at someone's landscape, can you tell right off the bat if a tree's struggling as far as water's concerned, by the way, it's sighted, by the weather that we've been having?

Jake: Absolutely. There've been a lot of places I walk up to, and I just think, "Wow, that tree's soaked." Or, "That tree's dried." It'll be a white pine that's planted on someone's sidehill, and they've got their drain tile running right up to the base of it, and the whole thing's browned out. What have I seen dry out the most? I've got a smoke tree at my house and that one just keeps looking wilted and wilted, and I just can't get it enough water.

Doug: I think the biggest mistake I see gardeners do in their vegetable gardens is just spritz it, and not really soak it in. I have to assume from talking to arborists since I've been doing this podcast, that's a wrong way, brother. You got to soak that thing in.

Jake: That's right. A lot of times people tell me, "Well, I hose the tree down regularly, and we're not seeing the results." The tree's going to soak that water up with its roots. You don't need to spray down the leaves. The other thing I'll often hear is, "Well, I water my lawn every day, but my tree looks dried out." It's back to that you really got to soak it in. Mulching is really important for the tree to allow it some space at the base of the trunk where the turf-- Turf needs so much water too, that it's going to soak up the majority of what you put down if you're just using an irrigation system in your yard.

That mulching is going to open up a gap in that turf around the critical roots of that tree. When you do water, it it can penetrate through the top layer, and if you've got a good mulching there, it's going to keep it trapped rather than just letting it sit on top or dry out.

Doug: Well, required by law, when we mention a mulching to explain exactly how to do it the right way because if we don't, there'll be another volcano mulch somewhere out there. That's the last thing we want. We talk a lot about that here at Talking Trees podcast. Go through it, give us the instructions on the proper mulching and the horror of volcano mulching.

Jake: We see volcano mulching exploding all over the landscape plenty. A lot of times, people think, "It's great, I've got this mulching." In reality, you've got the trunk tissue of the tree and the root tissue of the tree. That root tissue is just fine to stay wet, but the trunk tissue needs to dry out. When you mount that up along the trunk of the tree, you're encouraging rot in the main stem, and you're encouraging stem-girdling roots. Really the right way to put it down, leave that two to three-inch gap from the main stem of the tree, and that's going to allow that trunk tissue to dry out. You want more of a donut than you do want a volcano.

Doug: How far out does that mulching go?

Jake: With that, a newly planted tree, it's really good to cover the whole root ball and not under it, of course, but the width of the root ball or one and a half times it. With a mature tree, it's really not a bad thing to have mulch under the entire drip line, but people like to have some turf in their yard. Finding a balance of just really giving it enough space to soak up that water, keep the roots wet without losing your beautiful yard as well.

Doug: What is your reaction when you're driving down the street and you look over and you see all these houses with their volcano mulch and people were in the car with you, what do you do?

Jake: I'll often point it out to them and just say, "That's what we don't want to do." It's really fun, as a consulting or sales arborist, I get to spend a lot of time working the education angle of tree care, and I enjoy that. I think more often than that, everyone's got a tree question. It sure is fun when I've got a decent answer for them too.

Doug: Here's the thing, I've been writing about gardening, talking about gardening for 30 years, and my son gets his first house. How do you think he mulched his Japanese maple?

Jake: Just a beautiful volcano all the way around, I bet.

Doug: [laughs] Does that ever happen with you, with somebody that you know, somebody close to you, and you have to say something, you're going to kill the tree?

Jake: You got to let them know. I see it often enough, but a lot of times, everyone's got a tree question and if people are planting trees, they certainly want to learn about how to take care of them. It's a pretty easy one to approach. You can always lead with a compliment and tell them, "Oh, it's great you've got a mulching around that tree. Let's push it away from the trunk so it can breathe a little bit and dry out where it needs to."

Doug: You don't say, "It's great you had a mulching there, but you're killing your tree"?

Jake: I tend to soft shoe around it a little more than that, but we find a way to make it work.

Doug: You brought up something I thought was interesting, the combination of turf and tree. Talk a little bit about that relationship. I know, in general, again from doing the podcast and talking to arborists and being educated, you don't want turf right up against the side of a tree because you're going to mess it up with a trimmer or bang into it with the mower. What are you seeing out there?

Jake: That's definitely one of the most common issues I see in, we call it string trim or blight or mower blight and you can tell they've just smashed into it repeatedly, and it's having a hard time at ground level. Being a person who works trees, you wouldn't think you spend as much time convincing people to buy mulch as you do, but it's really just, "Let's give that tree some space and let it be a tree." Nice mulching looks just as good as turf and it makes the trees look more intentional and it can shine up the landscape well too.

Doug: One little tip I like to give people, they're always asking me, "What can I grow under a maple tree and a pine tree?" I always say, "A bench. A bench is the perfect thing to plant there."

Jake: That's right.

Doug: Tell me a little bit about how you got into this, why this job's right for you.

Jake: Just after college, I did Conservation Corps in Colorado. I was on a chainsaw crew, where we got to hike with chainsaws and clear trails and cut fire breaks and I really enjoyed that. It was a volunteer position with a partial education stipend. I said, "I really like being outside, I really like working with trees and being in them. What can I do to turn that into a career instead of a fun summer volunteer position?"

I found Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin where I did their two-year program. Was listening to your podcast from this week and Josh from the North Shop also went there. I thought it's pretty cool, it's a good representation of Mid-State Tech out here. After that, I worked with a municipal company for a summer and did my internship with Davey here, and when I graduated, I came back full-time. That was over five years ago now. It's been a really good time.

Doug: We could have used you for last week's intern show?

Jake: Yes, I definitely went from intern to full-time to climbing arborist and field technician, and now, I'm in a consulting sales position. It's been a good place to grow.

Doug: Tell me a little bit about that consulting arborist job. What does that entail?

Jake: I come into work in the morning and I meet with my crew that's going to be going out doing the work and we do some stretching and discuss safety plan for the day. I'll head out, meet them at their first job and walk them through the project. After that, it's three to eight appointments, meeting with different homeowners and potentially commercial properties discussing what their trees need, what we can do to keep them healthy, and putting together a list of recommendations for them.

Usually, I'm getting some phone calls throughout the day, checking in with the crew and homeowners who have work schedule. Usually, around four or five o'clock I get back to the office, meet with my crew, make sure the day went well, check-in if there was anything that needed to be adjusted and put together a couple more sets of recommendations, and go home and relax and start all over again the next day.

Doug: You said something interesting there, I never heard before, stretching.

Jake: Yes.

Doug: I never thought of that, if you're going to be doing that physical job of that crew climbing, so part of it be before you get going is stretching?

Jake: Every morning, all the management team and all the crews get together and we circle up either in the shop or outside and go through a series of stretches to stay limber and be ready for the day. They'll occasionally stretch a little more while they're out on site, but it's a nice way to start the morning, you feel good and gives you a little time to check in with everyone too.

Doug: What a great idea and something again, I wouldn't think of. I really admire the climbers. To me, that seems like the hardest job possible, and through the time doing the podcast, I've talked to lots of different people that have moved out of climbing. I did one a couple of weeks ago where the manager told me he still has somebody 60-years-old climbing trees, if you can believe that.

Jake: Isn't that cool?

Doug: Yes-- [crosstalk]

Jake: [crosstalk] You maintain yourself right, you can really do it for a long time, but it's a lot of thinking going into how to not burn yourself out on it.

Doug: You're never going to see me any higher than the first floor of the house.


Doug: Leaving that for the pros. Another thing I found interesting there, talk about that safety meeting. Does that change for each place they're going to go, or is that a [inaudible 00:16:56] talk a little bit about that. That's cool.

Jake: We do a couple of parts to it. When we're at the shop in the morning, we'll discuss big picture what you may encounter, whether it's a hazard tree that needs to be approached differently, taken down gingerly. If you need to tie into an adjacent tree, so you can work the decayed tree without being tied to it, with your main climb line. We also just go over what safety equipment they'll need. That'll change day-to-day depending on the site and the job, and then we'll go over it a second time once we get there, and they'll write down a job briefing with a plan for how they're going to mitigate hazards and work to avoid obstacles while they're out there. Come up with a plan and their equipment going.

Doug: It is something to watch, a good crew. From a bystander's point of view, it's hard to understand how they're able to bring all that down without messing anything up. Pretty cool.

Jake: It's like a dance, yes. People who are good at it, it is just wild to watch how they know that branch is going to shift when they cut it free, where to tie it so it sits correctly and how to bring it down slowly without just pounding it through the turf or the roof of someone's house.

Doug: That's why you need a pro. I know you've seen it because I've seen it a million times, guys want to save a couple of bucks, they can run a chainsaw, but they have no idea where that tree's going to go and what it's going to do. It often ends badly. Just get a certified arborist to come take a look and get the work done right.

Jake: I agree 100%. The training and practice and safety practices that go into all of it that make the difference between a company that can last and a company that's going to hurt people. You really want to be on the right side of that.

Doug: One thing I wanted to ask you, what's the feeling like when you go to a property, they're worried like crazy, because this tree has been there for a long time and they notice something's wrong with it. What is the feeling like when you can tell them, "Hey, I know what's going on, I know how to fix it, and everything's going to be okay"?

Jake: It's great. One of my favorite things about trees is, for the most part, they do things slowly. There's a couple of diseases that can really take care of a tree pretty quick, but people would be really worried, "Oh, my leaves are changing color too soon." Or, "We've got a branch that looks brown and decayed."

Or we're seeing X, Y, and Z, and it's nice to just be able to help them out, calm them down, let them know that the difference between the tree today and tomorrow or a month from now is generally marginal, and it's stuff that we can approach and treat and ideally bring back around. It's great to be able to show up and give people good news when you can.

Doug: All right, Jake. As the front comes through here, I'm hoping I'm getting plenty of rain so I don't have to water all those trees. Appreciate your time and all the great information. Thanks so much.

Jake: Yes, thanks for making time for me, Doug. I'm looking forward to this, so thanks for having me out today.

Doug: Tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm you're host, Doug Oster. Next week, we have a great show for you. Did you know the team at Davey takes care of the trees and shrubs at Fallingwater, Frank LLoyd Wright's masterpiece? We'll talk with a local arborist who's worked on the property for decades, and Fallingwater's horticulturist about the importance of these historic plantings. As always, we like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.


[00:21:07] [END OF AUDIO]